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Biblical Introduction

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A technical name which is usually applied to two distinct, but intimately connected, things. First, it designates the part of Scriptural science which is concerned with topics preliminary to the detailed study and correct exposition of Holy Writ. Next, it is given to a work in which these various topics are actually treated.

Scope and divisions

As is commonly admitted at the present day, the general object of Biblical introduction is to supply the student of the sacred books of the Old and New Testaments with the knowledge which is necessary, or at least very desirable, for the right interpretation of their contents. Thus understood, the scope of an introduction to the inspired writings which make up the Bible is substantially that of an introduction to other writings of antiquity. An introduction helps materially the student of the text of these writings to know beforehand and in a precise manner the personal history and actual surroundings of the author to whom each writing is ascribed, to become acquainted with the date of composition and the general form and purpose of the works before him, to acquire familiarity with the leading features of the ancient languages in which the various books were originally written, to realize distinctly the peculiar literary methods employed in their composition, to know something of the various fortunes (alterations, translations, etc.) which have befallen the text in the course of ages, etc. An introduction, too, whether the work for which it is designed be profane or sacred, has usually a limited scope. It is not supposed to treat of each and every topic the knowledge of which might be useful for the right understanding of the books in question. It is justly regarded as sufficient for all practical purposes, when, by the information which it actually imparts, it enables the reader of the works of antiquity to start intelligently on the detailed study of their text. Owing, however, to the fact that the books of the Bible are not simply ancient, but also inspired, writings, the scope of Biblical introduction embraces the various questions which are connected with their inspired character, and which, of course, have no place in an introduction to merely human productions. For this same reason, too, certain topics — such as the questions of integrity and veracity — which naturally belong to treatises preliminary to the study of any ancient writing, assume a very special importance in Biblical introduction.

Biblical introduction is frequently, and indeed aptly, divided into two parts, general and special, the former embracing the preliminary questions which concern the Bible as a whole, the latter being restricted to those which refer to the separate books of Holy Writ. The field of general introduction has long been, and is still, surveyed from different standpoints by Biblical scholars. It no longer embraces a detailed description of the Oriental languages and of the Hellenistic Greek, but is universally limited, in regard to those languages, to a brief exposition of their leading characteristics. With regard to the questions which pertain to the antiquities, geography and chronology of the Bible, some scholars are still of the opinion that they should be dealt with in a general introduction to the study of the Holy Scripture; most, however — and rightly, as it seems — think that they do not belong to the field of general introduction; the proper place for such topics is either in special treatises or in the body of works on Biblical history. Again, a certain number of scholars regard as forming a part of general introduction the history of God's chosen people, of Divine Revelation, of Biblical theology, of the religious institutions of Israel. They rightly urge that a previous acquaintance with that history is invaluable in the pursuit of Biblical exegesis. It remains true, however, that the study of the historical, doctrinal, etc., contents of Holy Writ is usually considered outside the sphere of general introduction, and may be more profitably followed in distinct treatises bearing the respective names of sacred history, history of Biblical Revelation, Biblical theology, history of the religion of Israel. It thus appears that, at the present day, the tendency is to restrict the object of general introduction to a few questions, particularly to those which help directly to determine the value and meaning of the Sacred Writings considered as a whole. In point of fact, that object, as conceived especially by Catholics, is limited to the great questions of the inspired and canonical character of the Scriptures, their original text and principal translations, the principles and history of their interpretation. As already stated, special introduction deals with the preliminary topics which concern the separate books of the Bible. It is very naturally divided into special introduction to the Old Testament and special introduction to the New Testament. As the Divine authority of the books of either Testament is established by the study of the general introduction to the Bible, so the topics treated in the special introduction are chiefly those which bear on the human authority of the separate writings of the Bible. Hence the questions usually studied in connexion with each book or with a small group of books, such for instance as the Pentateuch, are those of authorship, unity, integrity, veracity, purpose, source of information, date and place of composition, etc. Instead of the divisions of Biblical introduction which have been set forth, numerous writers, particularly in Germany, adopt a very different grouping of the topics preliminary to the exegetical study of the Sacred Scriptures. They do away with the division of Biblical introduction into general and special, and treat of all the questions which they connect with the books of the Old Testament in an "Introduction to the Old Testament" and of all those which they examine with reference to the books of the New Testament in an "Introduction to the New Testament". In either "Introduction" they ordinarily devote a first section to the topics which refer to the contents, date, authorship, etc. of the separate books, and a second section to a more or less brief statement of the canon, text and versions, etc. of the same books considered collectively. Their distribution of the topics of Biblical introduction leaves no room for hermeneutics, or scientific exposition of the principles of exegesis, and in this respect, at least, is inferior to the division of Biblical introduction into general and special, with its comprehensive subdivisions.

Nature and method of treatment

Catholic scholars justly regard Biblical introduction as a theological science. They are indeed fully aware of the possibility of viewing it in a different light, of identifying it with a literary history of the various books which make up the Bible. They distinctly know that this is actually done by many writers outside of the Church, who are satisfied with applying to the Holy Scripture the general principles of historical criticism. But they rightly think that in so doing these writers lose sight of essential differences which exist between the Bible and merely human literature, and which should be taken into account in defining the nature of Biblical introduction. Considered in their actual origin, the sacred books which make up the Bible have alone a Divine authorship which must needs differentiate Biblical introduction from all mere literary history, and impart to it a distinctly theological character. In view of this, Biblical introduction must be conceived as an historical elucidation, not simply of the human and outward origin and characteristics of the sacred records, but also of that which makes them sacred books, viz., the operation of the Holy Ghost Who inspired them. Again, of all existing literatures, the Bible alone has been entrusted to the guardianship of a Divinely constituted society, whose plain duty it is to ensure the right understanding and correct exposition of the written word of God, by seeing that the topics preliminary to its exegesis be fittingly treated by Biblical introduction. Whence it readily follows that Biblical introduction is, by its very nature, a theological discipline, promoting, under the authoritative guidance of the Church, the accurate knowledge of Divine Revelation embodied in Holy Writ. For these and for other no less conclusive reasons, Catholic scholars positively refuse to reduce Biblical introduction to a mere literary history of the various books which make up the Bible, and strenuously maintain its essential character as a theological science. While doing so, however, they do not intend in the least to deny that the topics which fall within its scope should be handled by means of the historico-critical method. In fact, they distinctly affirm that Biblical introduction should be both historical and critical. According to them, constant appeal must be made to history as to a valuable source of scientific information concerning the questions preliminary to the study of the Bible, and also a witness whose positive testimony, especially with regard to the origin and the transmission of the Sacred Books, no one can lightly set aside without laying himself open to the charge of prejudice. According to them, too, the art of criticism must be judiciously employed in the study of Biblical introduction. It is plain, on the one hand, that the science of Biblical introduction can be said to rest on a solid historical basis only in so far as the data supplied by the study of the past are correctly appreciated, that is, are accepted and set forth as valid to the precise extent in which they can stand the test of sound criticism. It is no less plain, on the other hand, "that nothing is to be feared for the Sacred Books, from the true advance of the art of criticism; nay more, that a beneficial light may be derived from it, provided its use be coupled with a real prudence and discernment" (Pius X, 11 Jan., 1906).


As a distinct theological discipline, Biblical introduction is indeed of a comparatively recent origin. Centuries, however, before its exact object and proper method of study had been fixed, attempts had been made at supplying the readers and expositors of Holy Writ with a certain amount of information whereby they would be more fully prepared for the better understanding of the Sacred Writings. In view of this, the history of Biblical introduction may be extended back to the early years of the Church, and made to include three principal periods: patristic times; Middle Ages; recent period.

Patristic times

The early ecclesiastical writers were directly concerned with the exposition of Christian doctrines, so that their works relative to Holy Writ are distinctly hermeneutical, and present only occasionally some material which may be utilized for the treatment of the questions which pertain to Biblical introduction. Of the same general nature are the writings of St. Jerome, although his prefaces to the various books of Scripture, some of his treatises and of his letters deal explicitly with certain introductory topics. St. Augustine's important work, "De Doctrinâ Christianâ", is chiefly a hermeneutical treatise, and deals with only a few questions of introduction in book II, chapters viii-xv. One of the writers most frequently mentioned in connexion with the first period in the history of Biblical introduction is a certain Greek, Adrian (died about A.D. 450), who is probably the same as the Adrian addressed by St. Nilus as a monk and a priest. He certainly belonged to the Antiochene school of exegesis, and was apparently a pupil of St. John Chrysostom. He is the author of a work entitled Eisagoge eis tas Theias Graphas, "Introduction to the Divine Scriptures", which has indeed supplied the specific name of introduction for the theological science treating of topics preliminary to the study of Holy Writ, but which, in fact, is simply a hermeneutical treatise dealing with the style of the sacred writers and the figurative expressions of the Bible (P.G., XCVIII). The other principal writers of that period are: St. Eucherius of Lyons (died about 450), whose two books, "Instructiones ad Salonium filium", are rather a hermeneutical than an introductory work; the Benedictine Cassiodorus (died about 562), whose treatise "De institutione Divinarum Scripturarum" sums up the views of earlier writers and gives an important list of Biblical interpreters, chiefly Latin; the African bishop Junilius (died about 552), who belongs to the school of Nisibis, and whose "Instituta regularia divinæ legis" resembles most a Biblical introduction in the modern sense of the expression; lastly, St. Isidore of Seville (died 636), whose "Etymologiæ" and "Proœmia in libros V. et N. Testamenti" supply useful material for the study of Biblical introduction.

Middle Ages

During this period, as during the one just described, the preoccupations of the ecclesiastical writers were chiefly doctrinal and exegetical, and their methods of study had usually little to do with the historico-critical method of investigation by means of which, as we have seen, questions introductory to the interpretation of the Bible should be treated. Most of them were satisfied with a mere repetition of what had been said by St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and Cassiodorus. This they did in the prefaces which they prefixed to their commentaries on the Sacred Books, and the purpose of which is directly hermeneutical. The only remarkable work on introduction produced in the Middle Ages is the one which the Jewish convert Nicholas of Lyra (died 1340) placed at the beginning of his "Postilla Perpetua", and in which he treats of the canonical and uncanonical books, the versions of the Bible, the various senses of Holy Writ, and the rules of interpretation.

Recent period

This is by far the most important and most fruitful period in the history of Biblical introduction. Since the sixteenth century this branch of theological learning has been more and more cultivated as a distinct science, and has gradually assumed its present form. The first work of this period was published at Venice, in 1566, by the Dominican Sixtus of Siena (died 1599). It is entitled "Bibliotheca sancta ex præcipuis Catholicæ Ecclesiæ auctoribus collecta", and treats in eight books of the sacred writers and their works, of the best manner of translating and explaining Holy Writ, and gives a copious list of Biblical interpreters. Among the Catholic authors on introduction who soon followed Sixtus the following deserve a special mention: Arias Montanus (died 1598), whose "Prolegomena" in his Polyglot (Antwerp, 1572) forms a valuable introduction; Salmeron (died 1585), whose "Prolegomena Biblica" appears in the first volume of his works (Madrid, 1598); Serarius (died 1642) whose "Præloquia" (Antwerp, 1625) was selected by Migne as the most suitable general introduction with which to begin his "Sacræ Scripturæ Cursus Completus"; the Oratorian Lami (died 1715), the learned writer of the "Apparatus ad Biblia sacra" (Paris, 1687); the Benedictine Martianay (died 1717); and the able theologian Ellies Dupin (died 1719). Meantime the Protestants, somewhat belated by doctrinal bias, brought forth a certain number of general introductions, among which may be mentioned those of Rivet (Dordrecht, 1616); Walther (Leipzig, 1636); Calov (Wittenberg, 1643); Brian Walton (London, 1637); and Heidegger (Zurich, 1681) The first scholar to depart from the unsatisfactory method of treating topics preliminary to the study of Holy Writ which had hitherto prevailed, and which had made some of the writings of his immediate predecessors dogmatic treatises rather than works on Biblical introduction, was the French Oratorian Richard Simon (1638-1712). According to him the Sacred Books, no less than the various Biblical translations and commentaries, are literary products which must bear the impress of the ideas and the methods of composition prevalent at the time when they were written, so that, to view and appreciate these works aright, one should study them carefully in themselves and in the light of the historical events under which they came into existence. A study at once historical and critical appeared also to him the best means for disposing of unsound theories, and for vindicating the inspired character of the Bible, which had been recently impugned by Hobbes and Spinoza. Hence the name of "Histoire Critique", which he gave to his epoch-making introductions to the Old Testament (Paris, 1678), to the text (Rotterdam, 1689), versions (Rotterdam, 1690), and commentaries (Rotterdam, 1693) of the New Testament. Simon's methods and conclusions were at first strenuously opposed, and afterwards set aside by Catholics and by Protestants alike. The most noteworthy works of the eighteenth century on introduction, on the basis of the ancient method, are, among Catholics, those of Calmet (Paris, 1707-20); Goldhagen (Mainz, 1765-68); Fabricy (Rome, 1772); Marchini (Turin, 1777); and Mayer (Vienna, 1789); and, among Protestants, those of Hody (Oxford, 1705); Carpzov (Leipzig, 1721-28); J. D. Michaelis (Göttingen, 1750; Hamburg, 1787).

The true method of Biblical introduction set forth and applied by Simon was not destined, however, to be discarded forever. The rationalists were the first to use it, or rather to abuse it, for their anti-dogmatic purposes. Ever since the latter part of the eighteenth century, they, and those more or less affected by rationalistic tendencies, have very often openly, and at times with rare ability, treated Biblical introduction as a mere literary history of the Sacred Writings. As belonging to the critical school, the following writers on introductory topics may be mentioned: Semler (died 1791); Eichhorn (died 1827); de Wette (died 1849); Bleek (died 1859); Vatke (died 1882); Riehm (died 1888); Kuenen (died 1891); Reuss (died 1891); Scholten; Hilgenfeld; Wellhausen; W.R. Smith (died 1894); S. Davidson (died 1898); Strack; Wildeboer; E. Kautzsch; F. E. Koenig; Jülicher; Cornill; Baudissin; H. Holtzmann; Bacon; Budde; Cheyne; Kent; Moffatt; Von Soden; Pfleiderer; to whom may be added, as occupying in the main similar positions, B. Weiss; Salmon; Driver; A. B. Davidson (died 1902); Curtiss (died 1904); Ottley; Kirkpatrick; Ryle; Briggs; Bennett; Adeney; C. H. H. Wright; McFayden; and Geden. The following are the principal Protestant writers who meantime have striven to stay the progress of the critical school by treating the questions of Biblical introduction on conservative lines: Hengstenberg (died 1869); Hofmann (died 1877); Hävernick (died 1845); Keil (died 1888); Bissell; Gloag; Godet (died 1900); Westcott (died 1902); Harman; Sayce; Sanday; Green (died 1900); Dods; Kerr; Burkitt; Zahn; Mackay; Urquhart; and Orr.

During the same period Catholics have produced numerous works on Biblical introduction, and used in them, in various degrees, the historico-critical method of investigation. These works may be briefly given under four general heads, as follows:

From among the introductory works recently published by Jewish scholars the following may be mentioned: J. Fürst, "Geschichte der biblischen Literatur und des judisch-hellenistischen Schriftens" (Leipzig, 1867-70); Cassel, "Geschichte der judischen Literatur" (Berlin, 1872-73); J. S. Bloch, "Studien zur Geschichte der Sammlung der A. Literatur" (Leipzig, 1875); A. Geiger, "Einleitung in die biblischen Schriften" (Berlin, 1877); Wogue, "Histoire de la Bible et de l'Exégèse biblique jusqu'à nos jours" (Paris, 1881). Besides the separate works on Biblical introduction which have been mentioned, valuable contributions to that branch of Scriptural science are found in the shape of articles in the Dictionaries of the Bible and the general encyclopedias already published or yet issuing.

About this page

APA citation. Gigot, F. (1910). Biblical Introduction. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gigot, Francis. "Biblical Introduction." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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